They say a week is a long time in showbusiness and I’m inclined to agree as we near a year since myself and Keely launched The Mental Blocks. Even being able to name Keely is a huge step forward from when we started out. The very real threat of discrimination for her hung over our initial attempts to create an interesting way to view mental health stigmatisation.
As we approach our anniversary I think it’s a good time to reflect not just on what we have done but also how it has evolved and how it has changed and supported us.
Whilst our work is a webcomic, each issue isn’t a strip of images but rather one single image with which to drive our narrative forward. There are exceptions to that (the Christmas party for example) but generally we try to get everything in one picture. This obviously leads to a certain amount of tension around available space and also the amount of dialogue.
It’s fair to say that certain images have had too much exposition but in others (such as Amy’s nightmares about entering a psychiatric hospital) we have managed to use no words beyond a title. The intellectual rigour required for that has been both a source of joy and frustration for the two of us. I think the most rewarding images are the ones where the picture says everything.
We don’t tend to plan too far ahead in the story. Whilst we have a broad idea of direction we tend to shoot the images weekly so that they stay fresh. The exception to that is when we are working with other organisations.
Our partnerships with Time to Change and Mental Health First Aid England both required the storyline to build towards them and final pieces were shot in advance so we could plot backwards. To their credit both organisations trusted us to involve them and didn’t try to change our way of working.
So how do we do it? It’s pretty simple yet also quite challenging. At the start of a week we will speak on the phone (we rarely meet) and discuss the images. As Keely talks through our ideas I will adjust our standard sets (the office, Amy or Nick’s home for example) and begin to put the characters in. I will take pictures on my iPad and send them to Keely by photo stream. She will suggest any changes and I will reshoot as needed. Then I will import the images in to a cartoon app and begin work. If we have a tweet going out that day then we will do the words over the phone but often we will exchange ideas on the photo stream and I will send Keely amended images as we go. We rarely talk after the photoshoot with all communication happening via text.
The beauty of this system is that we can drop in to it when needed, there is no time pressure as such and we also get space to reflect. It allows for our own self care and also for us to support each other if one of us isn’t so well that week. When we started we thought we would do 2/3 images a week. Sometimes we manage that, other times we don’t manage anything for a fortnight but our supporters have been very understanding. We don’t constantly retweet or trail our images. We publish them and they take on a life of their own. Images we think are great disappear without trace, others we weren’t sure about are endlessly shared.
We’ve often been asked if we use photoshop but the reality is that each image is as seen. A picture of a model set. We use and reuse standard Lego sets and build some areas ourselves (Keely’s husband is a master builder and designed our office and training room). The only exception is the Time to Change and MHFA England storylines when we got bespoke items such as manuals and promotional materials printed by our good friends at Minifigs.me.
We are aware that our timeline is read by everyone from people with lived experience through to psychologists with plenty of variety in-between so our aim is to make the images honest without triggering the viewers, interesting without spelling out everything. We deliberately leave the images open to interpretation. Our audience will take what they need to and we don’t try to enforce one particular world view on anyone. Our work has been described as a “good medium for gently getting strong messages across” and certainly the Lego allows us to lighten a serious subject without being inappropriate.
Recently we were shortlisted for the Mind Media Awards – which is incredibly humbling, honouring and exciting for us both. Please bear in mind that we didn’t start out with any specific outcome or plan so to get national recognition is amazing to us. Thank you to those who nominated us. It has helped us reflect and actually realise just how much creative effort goes in to making the images each week. Both Keely and I have worked throughout the last year and The Mental Blocks is a side project we do in addition to our jobs. No one pays us but we feel that the content is valuable and useful. We hope you do too.